Spotted Dog Drainage, Spotted Dog WMA
Date: Sept. 15th, 2018
Participants: Lance Cherry, David & Julie Kahl
The Spotted Dog, a drainage that flows into The Little Blackfoot River, just west of Avon (Hwy 12), became a state Wildlife Management Area (WMA) around 2010, primarily to provide elk winter range. It has one road that accesses it from the west, just outside of Deer Lodge, up O’Neil Cr. on the Clark Fork- Little Blackfoot Divide, -the west rim of the Spotted Dog Cr. basin. And one road that comes in from the north and ends on the Spotted Dog -Trout Cr. Divide, the east edge of the basin. It has been my desire to find a point to point route through the WMA from one road end to the other, that would be about 8 miles/ 12.87k. The west road accesses a small part of the WMA that is west of a strip of private land this private land comprises most of the west side of the Spotted Dog drainage and part of the CF-LB divide, and on down into the Freezeout Cr. drainage. There is one, several hundred yards/meters wide, section that joins the two ends, by an old coral, off of the two track, Jake Cr. Road. Meaning that the point-to-point track has to come though this section. Our first explorations from the parking area on O’Neil Cr. involved finding this spot to see if it actually was passable. It was. Then trying to ID and climb the highest point on the WMA on the CF-LB Divide gave us an excuse to explore the area further, and, as the point-to-point track would have to cross the Divide, hopefully, find the best place to do that. The Helena National Forest Service Map and the GPS both showed a net work of roads throughout the area. Last year at this time, we went back in and climbed a 6,000ft/ 1828.8m point (Last Year’s Point) that is the north edge of the Freezeout Cr. main drainage, and clearly located the ridge opposite, with two prominent points, the south edge of the Freezeout Cr. drainage, as the highest points. (In the WMA -there are higher 6,600 ft/ 2011.68m points to the south off the WMA.) While up there I scoped out the terrain see if there was an easier route to the opposite ridge, then the obvious dropping down into Freezeout Cr. and climbing it on the steep north side. Later at home I verified the route on my GPS, which has all of my waypoints in it.
Today’s excursion was to finally climb the over 6,200 ft/ 1889.76m high point on the south side of the Freezeout Cr.’s main drainage. We met at the extreme west end of the dirt parking lot across from the Missoula College on E. Broadway, at 8:30, and were immediately relived to have Lance Cherry pull in, at the same time, in a crew cab Tacoma. We knew that a Tacoma could make it up to the O’Neil Cr. parking lot, unless it was very wet, and now we could all go in one vehicle. We waited around like 10 minutes for a fourth in our party who never showed, or contacted me on my phone. It took another five minutes or so to load our stuff in Lance’s truck, still no show, so we headed out. As we left I didn’t realize just how big that parking lot was, there were lost of cars on the other end and I wondered if our fourth person was waiting there, but didn’t see anyone that looked like they were waiting around for someone. So we drove on. We got off I-90 at the Beck Hill Road exit where you go west (right) onto a frontage road about 1/2 mi/ 0.80k, to where a box culvert goes under the interstate to Freezeout Cr. Road. Then in a short 1/2 mile/ 0.80k or so, that road comes to a "T" and the WMA entrance is right there. But we ended up driving about 3 miles/ 4.83k down the frontage road before we saw a culvert and went under and ended up driving around as nothing looked familiar. Finally we stopped and got out the map, but it wasn’t useful as we didn’t know exactly where we were. I fired up my GPS, found my waypoints and found we were way to the south, in the area of the Jake Cr. Rd. (Jake Cr. drains the south side of the sought after high point.) We used the GPS to follow the roads back north to the gate waypoint, and now saw the box culvert for Freezeout Cr. Rd. that we had somehow missed. And there was the WMA gate right where it was suppose to be. Now a three mile/ 4.83k dive - literally up- to the O’Neil Cr. parking area. When we had been here in other parts of year, there had been no one but us parked there, now with it being bow hunting season, there were several other vehicles parked there. It was partly cloudy, cool, with no wind. Straight ahead the "road" goes over a hill, but we knew to trend southeast across the flank of the hill to get into the mostly dry side channels of Virgina Gulch. We started a little before 11:AM. We were partially down the hill when David stopped to turn on his GPS and I realized I had forgotten mine back in the truck. It was too late to go back for it, so we continued on, up over a small hill to the main Virgina Gulch drainage, here you encounter the private land fence and have to drop down to cross Virgina Gulch, it has an impounded spring just above and a small stream of water in it, but you can step over it. Up the hill on the other side that is the Virgina Gulch -Freezeout Cr. Divide, there is a corner like jog in the fence line and the first of two gates we needed to go through, in that little joining section. Depending in which route you take this point is 3/4 -1 mile (1.21-1.61k). On the other side of the fence was a heard of cows, on the two track Jake Cr. Rd. We needed to go up the road a few hundred feet to a second gate by the old corral system. The corral, with a spring in it, has been long unused and not predicated on by cattle, so it is an interesting tangle of shrubs and young trees. But here we ran into a hiker’s dilemma. Every other time we had been through here the Corral Area gate had been closed, with a sign next to it that says "Please Close Gate," but now the gate was open with the heard of cows on both sides. Do we close the gate and divide the herd, maybe blocking some off from a potential water source? Had the herd owner left the gate open on purpose? There is sort of a background "cattle country" "code" that says you leave gates as you find them, if they are closed you re-close them, if they are open you leave them open. We left it open and continued on.
Continuing on took us up a hill beyond the corral. Now all of the little gullies and such we would be crossing were small water courses draining into Freezeout Cr. Surprisingly, all of them had some water in them, and more than just a trickle. Looking up the draws we could often see small copses of trees higher up, probably indicting springs where the water originated. This is a country where you climb in and out of draws, and as you are climbing out you think you are coming to the top of the ridge only to find that it rolls over to yet another ridge, giving the climb a bit of terrace effect. It was mostly bunch grasses with bare spots in between, and you had to watch where you stepped because critter holes were everywhere, some big enough to put two feet into. We hoped those were attributed to badgers, medium sized ones we figured to foxes and rabbits. But despite all the holes, we never saw sign of, or the actual critters that lived there. We did see an occasional small bird. There were lots of dried flower stalks, including some knapweed. Besides the knapweek and thistles, the only thing still blooming was small sage brush and maybe rabbit brush. There was lots of both of those schrubs and in ten years or so, this will have returned to sagebrush country. Over the hill we encountered one of our four critical land marks, one was the group of trees by the parking area that you could see a long ways off. One was the green vegetation in the old corral, another was the summit of Last Year’s Point which would be our major sight navigation reference point for the rest of the trip. But this one was an orange pipe indicating a buried pipeline. It was from this point, last year, that we had gone southeast over the flank of the hill to drop into a gully and cross a fence line and eventually climb the 6000 ft/ 1828.8m grassy point. Now we went straight up the terracy hill in front of us, a rocky point, to the north of Last Year’s Point, to gain a broad saddle that wrapped around behind Last Year’s Point and the higher summit ridge to its south. All of the high points have rocky -Boulder Batholith rock tops, but on this point it was more exposed then on the other points. On the top of this ridge the GPS showed a road running south, across the top, down into the low point of the saddle between it and up to other end of the saddle behind our High Point Ridge. We ran into the fence line we knew we had to cross as we got close to the top, but kept going up as we figured it would have a gate where it crossed the road. Then we changed that strategy as we approached the top, as we could see no evidence of the road or a gate, and came across about a 20 ft/ 6.10 m section of the fence that was down. We crossed there, and stopped to consider our options. Going to the top of this saddle, even in its lowest place, was out of our way, as now we could see that we would need to drop down like 400 ft / 121.92m to get to the base of the High Point Ridge, or go up again and add several more miles/kilometers to get around to the high Point Ridge’s south side. There was the trace of a road coming out of the saddle that we followed down, scoping out the opposite ridge. We could see several roads on this side, and a bit before bottoming out we stopped to have lunch, it was now 1:PM. Here Lance asked us if we wanted some smoked salmon, and pulled out a big bag of salmon (he works in Alaska), it was heavy and I admired that he had carried it all that way. We of course ate some then he said to take the rest home with us. No argument there, it went into David’s pack.
The ridge ahead of us had two prominent points, both showing up on the GPS as 6,200 ft/ 1889.76m. The east one -closer to us- had trees on this its steep north side, the west point was grassy and "bald" and looked like the higher of the two. It was also easier to keep track of as we climbed up that way. We decided there, at the lunch stop, that we would not come back this way, but just come down the ridge side to the Freezeout Cr. bottom. After our lunch spot we dropped a little bit more then crossed a swampy side tributary of Freezeout Cr. and on to the base of the Ridge. We knew we didn’t want the lowest road so we climbed up a mixed treed and grassy slope to the higher road. Followed it a short ways until it became obvious that it was dropping down into the creek bottom. Now we decided to climb up to the tree band above us, figuring it would be easy walking in there, it was, but elk thought so too, sign was every where. Now we could occasionally get a fix on the bald point, and climbed steep grassy slopes or through tree bands up towards it. Somewhere in here David and Lance saw some elk off in the trees. We were also seeing moose, bear and cat sign. The GPS was saying that we were climbing around the base of the treed high point, but not where any of the roads were on the GPS map, which seemed to show a road running across the ridge on the south side. Towards the top we found yet another phantom road that went no where. We came up into a broad saddle between the bald point, to the west, and the one with trees to the east. From down here both looked equally high. I sat down with the GPS and eventually got it to tell us that the west point -the bald one, was 6200 ft/ 1889.76m high, the one on the east was 6240 ft/1901.95 tall. The map had contour intervals of 40 ft/ 12.19m. Still the west one looked higher, but we believed the GPS and started to climb the east summit. Now the sun had come out and as we climbed this dry open slope, reminded us that it was a 75 degree/ 23.98c day elsewhere. Like so much of the terrain, we soon saw that what we were seeing from below was the summit plateau, and it rolled over into yet another high point further back. I watched the Bald Point and as we approached the 6,200/ 1889.76m ft level it was clear that we would soon be looking over the top of it. On the grassy rocky top the GPS settled on 6270 ft/ 1911.1m and we were clearly on the highest point in the area and had come up 670 ft/204.22m from the gully bottom. There was a USGS bench marker up there. We had come a little over 4 miles/6.44k from the parking area. We could see no sign of the road that was suppose to be on the south side of the ridge. We took the obligatory summit photos and I took the chance to scope out the upper Spotted Dog Creek basin we could now clearly see on the other side of the CF-LB Divide.
David and Lance used their binoculars to scout our course back. At 3:PM we started back down the steep slopes of the point, both open slopes and treed sections. We detoured once around a concave slope that was over grown with small raspberry bushes and five feet high thistles. As two of us were in shorts this was a good idea, and it also avoided some cows. It took us a good half hour to get back down the 830ft/258.98m to the bottom of Freezeout Cr. We ended up in the creek bottom where two feeder streams come in, and we could hear water running in Freezeout Cr. But all three were step overs in a boggy area. We took a short break on the opposite slope, it was still sunny and warm, but the north and west were darkening up. Now we had to climb 320ft/ 97.45m up the north side of the main drainage, one of those that kept rolling over to higher hills, to cross onto the toe of Last Year’s Point. There we crossed the fence line just a few feet from where we had crossed it last year. Now we trended northwest to come over the shoulder to the orange pipe. Up over and down the hill to the corral, where now the entire heard of cows were on our side of the Corral Area gate, between us and it. As we approached they decided to all scramble back though the gate, almost like they weren’t suppose to be there, except one cow lingering by the gate, she decided to go through also and we stopped and waited for the gate to clear. Once again the dilemma, but again we left the gate open. They stood around and watched as we crossed Jake Cr. Rd. and went through the Virgina Gulch gate. On the other side we took a little longer break, it was getting seriously cloudy, cooler and we had a wind coming at us from over the hill as we climbed up out of Virginia Gulch. Lance and David thought they heard voices coming from the parking area on the wind, and shortly we saw two people on horseback off to our left, they were going down Virginia Gulch as we were going up. For some reason we miscalculated, on every trip, the climb back up to the parking area and end up coming back down on the "road" that goes up over the hill. Having climbed up higher than we needed to. With in the last few hundred feet down I felt rain drops. Fortunately we got back down the road before its powdery dirt turned to slick mud, it wasn’t really raining there. We didn’t get serious rain until we were around Clinton. We got back to the truck around 5:PM and the distance from the summit to parking had been roughly 3 1/2 miles/ 5.63k. Later I ran numbers on how much elevation loss and gain we’d had with all the gully/draw climbings, it came out to 1,500 ft/ 457.2m whereas the elevation change between the parking lot and the summit was 630 ft/ 192.02m. Now I understand why people who lived and worked in this area spent a lot of time getting around on horse back.
Whats next? Now that we know the particulars of crossing the CF-LB Divide and finding the pinch point, it’s time to start exploring the east side of the WMA, Get some good waypoints on how to navigate the upper Spotted Dog drainage before doing the point-to-point. Stay tuned.